Photojournalists who should be better known

Sonoma County Museum has opened an exhibit displaying the photography of Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel

Our local history museum has opened an exhibit displaying the work of photojournalists Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel. Mieth and Hagel chronicled the struggles of working people and persons displaced during the Great Depression and mid-twentieth century America.

Johanna Mieth and Otto Hagel were born in Germany, both in 1909. They became friends growing up. In their teens they traveled together throughout Europe. Otto gave Johanna the nickname “Hansel” during their travels. He felt it would be safer if she appeared to be a boy. She went by Hansel thereafter.

Otto left Germany and came to the U.S. – illegally – in 1928. Hansel followed two years later. They ended up in California and eventually took jobs as agricultural workers. Their photography from this period documented the lives of migrant workers, the Hoovervilles around Sacramento, living conditions in San Francisco’s Mission District and dockworkers in San Francisco and Oakland.

Life magazine offered Hansel a staff position in 1937. Otto turned down a similar offer, instead taking free-lance assignments for Life and, perhaps ironically, its sister publication Fortune.

Some of Hansel’s work can be seen here.

A sampling of work Otto did for Fortune is here.

Hansel and Otto married in 1940, and the next year they purchased 550 acres near Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. During the war period their photographic assignments became fewer, perhaps because of their German background. Post-war, assignments picked up until they were effectively blacklisted because of their refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They documented their not successful efforts at being chicken farmers.

The exhibit at the Sonoma History Museum runs through August 30, 2015.


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